Our Charter – Our Rights: Protest, the Charter and International Human Rights Conference

August 15, 2022

By Benjamin Drummond and Sophie Lewycky

On June 16 and 17, we attended the “Our Charter – Our Rights: Protest, the Charter and International Human Rights” hosted by the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law to mark the 40th anniversary of the Charter. We were invited to attend by Alex Neve, Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and co-organizer of the conference.

On June 16th, John Packer, Director of the HRREC gave a welcome address and introduced Elder Verna McGregor, who gave a few remarks and offered a blessing. The day opened with talks from UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Peaceful Assembly and Association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, and Gary Anandasangaree, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

The busy morning schedule continued with three panels: first, about the right to protest through the lens of international human rights; next, about the right to protest through the lens of the Charter; and finally, about international human rights law implementation in Canada, with a specific focus on the rights of the child.

In the afternoon, we presented our research which was part of a project helmed by Alex Neve which sought to analyze UN international human rights recommendations made towards Canada and their subsequent implementation at the Ontario level. The opportunity to participate in this project was thanks to Professor Michael Lynk, who connected us with Alex. The project involved students from other law schools, who researched implementation in other provinces. Being able to share the results of our hard work with academics, lawyers, and fellow law students was gratifying.

After the student presentations, the students broke out into small groups to discuss issues around both human rights implementation in Canada and limits on the right to protest. The day ended with a talk from Allan Rock and Anne McLellan, both former Ministers of Justice and Attorneys General of Canada in the 1990s. Both offered insight regarding their role in the early years after the enactment of the Charter. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear their point of view on the Charter forty years later.

The next day on June 17th, the conference opened with a panel featuring lifelong civil servant Huguette Labelle, University of Ottawa law Professor Edward Ratushny and Federal Court Justice William Pentney. The three panelists spoke on the historic challenges and progress thereof to the implementation of human rights since the Charter’s introduction.

After a short break, the students were treated to a panel addressing the current scope of human rights regimes. Former Green Party Leader and MP Elizabeth May spoke about human rights in regard to the environment while James Burton QC of the Doughty Street Chambers spoke about housing as a human right. Dr. Murtazah Shaikh and UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Dr. Fernand de Varennes also shared the stage to speak on human rights in relation to extremism and global minority population rights, respectively.

After lunch, the focus of the conference shifted again towards practical implementation of human rights. Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Kasari Govender, Commissioner of the BC Human Rights Commission, and Marie-Josee Houle, Federal Housing Rights Advocate spoke at length regarding what provincial human rights regimes can do to produce effective change.

In the afternoon, Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, provided an international and comparative perspective of human rights implementation in the area of housing. Following this discussion, Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami spoke on human rights issues currently facing Inuit people in Canada and the federal government’s historic treatment of Inuit people.

In the evening, conference participants were privileged to host the Ottawa launch of the documentary “The Cost of Freedom”, which tells the story of refugee journalists in Canada. The film was followed by an in-person discussion with film-maker James Cullingham and featured refugee journalist Luis Horacio Nájera.

In all, the two day-conference was an invaluable learning experience. The wide range of student participants and conference speakers truly helped to contextualize the diversity of opinion that is present within human rights scholarship and advocacy circles. We would like to thank both Professor Alex Neve for organizing the conference and Dean Chamberlain for sponsoring our participation in it. It was certainly an incredible way to end our 3L year at Western Law.